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Harris adds more uncertainty to race

The Republican says she is preparing "the strategy for a major announcement" concerning her Senate candidacy.

Published March 12, 2006

In the latest sign of uncertainty surrounding her beleaguered Senate campaign, Katherine Harris canceled plans to attend a Republican conference in Tennessee Saturday to take stock of her political future.

"Unfortunately, I am unable to join you this weekend, as I prayerfully prepare with my family, friends and advisers to finalize the strategy for a major announcement next week concerning my candidacy for the U.S. Senate," Harris said in a statement addressed to delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis. "I will continue to look to our Founding Fathers, who pursued their vision with integrity and perseverance, to discern the best course of action for the state of Florida and our nation."

The statement, coming after a day of campaigning in Charlotte, DeSoto and Hardee counties, did little to bring clarity to the campaign. In typically theatrical fashion, Harris left Florida politicos speculating whether she will pull the plug on her campaign to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson or do something dramatic such as drop out of Congress to campaign full time or commit millions of her own money to the campaign.

"I would be hard pressed to interpret that as anything other than a prelude to withdrawal. Normally you wouldn't have to meet with friends and family to make a major campaign announcement that you're staying in," Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said when he heard the statment. "But Katherine often surprises people. Last time she engendered a lot of suspense and attention when she announced she was not getting in" the 2004 Senate race.

Resigning from Congress, said Republican consultant Geoffrey Becker, would do little to immunize her from the continuing controversy from recent revelations about illegal campaign contributions to her 2004 House campaign.

"That kind of letter makes it sound like she's getting out," Becker said.

Republicans, meanwhile, lack a strong alternative candidate who could replace Harris and quickly gear up a massive statewide campaign to try to unseat Nelson. Term limits force Gov. Jeb Bush out of office after this year but he has steadfastly ruled out running for the Senate. So have Republican gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher.

Harris is one of the biggest celebrities in the Republican Party because of her role as Florida's top elections official during the contested presidential election in 2000. But that celebrity power didn't stop open skepticism of her campaign from leading Republicans. Neither has it helped her raise much money so far.

Her campaign only recently started to gain traction with public endorsements from the likes of Bush, and then it was buffeted by the campaign contribution news involving defense contractor MZM Inc.

Former MZM president Mitchell Wade pleaded guilty to bribing Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., in exchange for help getting $150-million in Defense Department contracts. He also told investigators he made illegal campaign contributions in the names of MZM employees and their spouses to Harris. Prosecutors said Harris got $32,000 from employees who were reimbursed by Wade.

Harris has had few fundraising events in Florida lately, while Nelson has had high-profile help raising money from the likes of Sen. Hillary Clinton and, this weekend, Al Gore. Harris already has put $250,000 of her own money in the race, but by some estimates would have to dig into her own pocket for millions more if she is to credibly compete with Nelson, expected to have at least $10-million in his campaign account by month's end.

Still, her note to Republican activists in Memphis sounded optimistic: "While there has been much speculation in recent days concerning my campaign, and our party faces challenges in this midterm election, I am confident with your dedication and commitment, we shall be victorious in November."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or

[Last modified March 12, 2006, 01:17:10]

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